Functioning In Another Culture: What You Need To Know

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A friend of mine recently sent me a link on Facebook to a presentation called, Myth And American Values. In it, the author compares 13 values in American society and compares them with counterpart values found in other cultures. As I went through the brief presentation that strong light of recognition went through me as I compared the values of Americans with those of other cultures. Having lived in three countries I know a little of this subject (though I’m by no means an expert). I wish someone had shared this kind of tool with me before I moved to Mongolia in 2002. It would have saved me a lot of headaches.

When I took over Eagle TV in Mongolia I wanted to enter the competition and make Eagle the best I could. I wanted Eagle to be number one, with the best news, and best presentation on air. I wanted to secure exclusive for programming that I wouldn’t let anyone else touch—that’s the American way. That meant grabbing the bull by the horns, wrestling it to the ground and conquering the competition. It’s the American way. But it’s not always the way of other cultures. In fact, in some ways the “American way” of doing things can quickly cause problems. Just reading these two lists brought several examples to my mind of how I should have done some things differently. But the past is the past. After 10 years in Mongolia I hope I’m better prepared for my next overseas assignment.

Take a look at this list of American values and values in other countries:

AMERICAN VALUES
Personal Control Over Environment
ChangeTime and its Control
Equality
Individualism and Privacy
Self-Help
Competition
Future Orientation
Act/Work Orientation
Informality
Directness/Openness/HonestyPracticality/Efficiency
Materialism/Acquisitiveness
VALUES IN OTHER COUNTRIES
Fate
Tradition
Human Interaction
Hierarchy/Rank/StatusGroup’s
Welfare
Birthright Inheritance
Cooperation
Past Orientation
“Being” Orientation
Formality
Indirectness/Ritual/“Face”
Idealism
Spiritualism/Detachment

If you are working outside the US, especially in areas like Asia or the Middle East you may recognize the set of values on the right from your interactions with the people you are serving. Some of these things you may have picked up right away. Or perhaps you are like me and it takes a hammer to the head to recognize what you are living with. The two sides of the list are not right and wrong sides, they are simply expressions of culture and value that are a natural part of the working out of history and religious values that affect the thinking of people in those countries. In fact, Myth And American Values touches on this very subject and would be a worthwhile read for any American looking to live overseas no matter what country you are entertaining.

At the same time, in the last year that I’ve been back in America I’m noticing that the American values on the left, in some cases, are slowly giving way to some of the values on the right, especially values like human interaction, group welfare, and cooperation. Perhaps you see other values in your experience. Recognizing the values we live under can give us an edge in understanding a culture and reaching out to it with the love of Christ. For instance, we may think that always being right on time is an expression of respect for other people’s time. But in many cultures sticking to punctuality might actually be offensive and look like you care more about your agenda than the other person’s life. Mark me down with a negative check on that one. I’m a stickler for timeliness. 

Where are you on these lists of values? Take a look at Myth And American Values and see how you stack up.

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